Sitting Beneath the Michigan Tree: Back at the Festival of Faith & Writing

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Kwame Alexander opening the Festival of Faith & Writing

Kwame Alexander, Newberry Award-winning author of The Crossover, looked out across the sea of 2,000 introverts and defied every tenet of writerly reserve. “Say ‘yes,’” he said. Say ‘yes’ to the opportunity, the challenge, even to the indignities of selling your work. There is power in your words.

Kwame has a bus now with a living room and seven flat-screen TVs. His name is scrawled across the side. He got his break taking a hay bale and 100 copies of his book to a farmer’s market in Reston, Virginia. Now he’s traveling the country on a 30-day tour.

His confidence and energy was enough to make even the most reluctant writer stand up and cheer, which we did. Speaking as the opening keynote of the 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing, Alexander said, “I have faith in my writing.”

I needed that.

This is my sixth visit to the FFW. The biennial gathering of authors, publishers, readers, and others never fails to inspire. Even before Kwame took the stage at the Van Noord Arena at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was primed.

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 The Michigan Tree & Me

I was recalling the 2008 session when I first heard Mary Karr talk about the spiritual advisor who asked her, “What would you write if you weren’t afraid?” I walked out of the session, sat under a nearby tree, asked myself the same question, and God spoke. It was the Renaissance of my writing life.

I remembered Gene Luen Yang in 2010 who turned me on to graphic novels like his American Born Chinese, and briefly made me believe I could draw. The poets Mary Szybist and Kimberly Johnson whose shared session in 2014 made me a daily reader of poetry. Franz Wright, Marilynne Robinson, Scott Cairns, Krista Tippett—I met them all here.

So yesterday, I soaked in the vibe, ready to hear God again in these varied artists. I attended a session on editing and learned that the double space after periods is dead. I got to talk with The Atlantic’s Emma Green about reporting from the Holy Land. Jonathan Merritt taught me how to be a blogger, (reminding me of how much he influenced the form of Heartlands). And I cringed at the world of publicity that a panel of writers and publicists opened up.

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Downtown Grand Rapids

I also sat under the tree again—the Michigan Tree as I call it. A scrubby spruce in front of Calvin Seminary. I remembered what I had heard God say, so clearly, before—Be free, tell the truth, don’t do it alone, seek the peace of Szybist. And transgressing propriety, I asked for something more.

The tree is a reliable means of grace and did not disappoint yesterday either. “Travel light,” I heard. “Be less than you think you have to be,” I heard. “Embrace,” I heard.

There is power in words. And beauty. And life.

And God.

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Chicken Houses and Change

animal-avian-beak-891223The old saw that says rural churches have a hard time with change may be getting tired.  All you have to do is look around those churches to see that a lot of things are already changing.  Maybe the question isn’t whether we will change, but how.

It seems like every other day now I see a new field being cleared here on the Shore to construct new houses.  No, it’s not a residential boom.  Much as we need some attention to our housing market, the new residents are of the feathered variety.  That’s new revenue for the county, but as I look at all these long, new buildings, each of which can probably house 20,000 birds, I wonder what the change will mean.  How will we manage the byproducts of such barns?  What’s the impact of having that many chickens in one place?

Change causes us to ask big questions and, even in the country, there are changes afoot.  When churches confront the questions change presents head-on, they may find an exciting new chapter ahead.

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Jacob Armstrong’s book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation, is built around the idea that churches thrive when they adapt to new conditions.  I’ve been returning to this book over the last few months and looking at it through the lens of rural churches.  I appreciate that Armstrong, who began a new church in the Nashville suburbs, recognizes that every group of people being asked to go somewhere new is going to have a “Back to Egypt Committee.”

“There are three things that the Back to Egypt Committee will say to you.  Be ready for them.

We won’t have all we need.

It was better back in Egypt.

You have to do it on your own.” (54)

As it turns out, each of these is a lie.  A good understanding of how God works will show that God will provide, that slavery to the past is not better than the journey to something new, and that God will give us partners for the journey.  What we need, Armstrong says, is to hear the same promise that God gave Joshua—be strong and courageous.

I appreciate the way that Armstrong recognizes the potentially helpful role of conflict in moving forward.  “Healthy conflict is actually a time saver,” he notes.  “As we take the courage to engage in healthy conflict we are actually more honest and open with our people and can more quickly move towards where God wants us to go.” (60)  For the many leaders who are averse to conflict, (and I count myself as one of them), it helps to realize this reality.

Ultimately, as with all things related to the church, it comes down to the mission.  If we are committed to being what God calls us to be and to doing what Christ called his Church to do, we will let that guide how we think about change.  Is our current practice hindering us from seeing what God is doing in the world? Can we cultivate meaningful relationships doing something new?

Can we handle change?  We will.  The question is how?

Who’s Fighting For Democracy These Days?

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photo by Isai Ramos via Unsplash.com

Let’s talk politics.  I don’t do this much on the blog, because it’s a toxic substance and has to be handled with care.  But there’s no doubt that Heartlands had its origin in concerns about the political direction of the country.  And there is no way to talk about these strange days of rural America without dealing with the role they are playing in the current Great Divide.

My own taste in political thinkers runs to thoughtful iconoclasts who don’t lean with the prevailing winds.  I like people who search for the larger contours of our present moment and different frames for viewing the scene.

41dqZWxy60L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Edward Luce is such a person and I have just gotten around to his 2017 book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism.  I highly recommend it.  Luce is a British-born, American-based columnist for the Financial Times.  He also served as a speechwriter for the Treasury Secretary in the Obama White House.  But don’t expect hopey-changey from this guy.

Luce is horrified by a political landscape which allows unprincipled populist blowhards to rule the day, but he isn’t surprised.  For Luce, liberal democracies have been on the retreat for awhile now, and Trump is the symptom, not the disease.  The comfortable, urban, wealthy elites of the West have been divorcing themselves from the anxious, rural, working class for some time now.  And the the divide is only getting worse.

In four brief sections of a 200-page book, Luce offers a breathless ride through his thesis.  In the first section, “Fusion,” he takes on globalism—how it has enriched so many in developing nations but also how it has forced down wages on the Western middle classes.  Urban centers have flourished even as they have begun to grow more and more disconnected from the nations around them.  London is not responsible for Brexit any more than Chicago is responsible for Trump, but they share so much in common with each other and so little with the hinterlands for which they used to be magnets.  “To the West’s economic losers,” Luce says, “cities like London and Chicago are not so much magnets as death stars.” (48)

Buckle your seat belt.  It gets worse.

The second section, “Reaction,” charts “the degeneration of Western politics” in which the optimism that accompanied economic growth curdles into the angry, divisive movements that seek a scapegoat and a nostalgic return to a more secure past.  When progressives saw this movement and slapped easy labels like ‘racist,’ ‘regressive,’ and ‘whitelash’ on it, it only fed the divide.  Something that became all to clear in the aftermath of Charlottesville, when MAGA Americans, who were otherwise sympathetic to the outrage over the overt racism, felt they were being asked to sign on to an agenda that equated their support of Trump with the same overt racism.  “To write off all those who voted for [Trump] as bigoted will only make his job easier,” Luce notes. (97)

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Edward Luce

The third part, “Fallout,” looks at the foreign policy implications of the United States’ declining power in the world.  The chaotic world that takes the place of Pax Americana is a frightening one to consider as Luce tells it.

Finally, in the fourth part, “Half Life,” Luce sketches, all too briefly, an ambitious plan to combat the decline of the democracies—one which would require a recognition by both right and left that we can’t keep ‘playing to the base’ no matter how righteous it makes us feel.  Some new common narrative must take the place of the Great Divide.

There have been a lot of books out there that try to explain what’s going on in the Heartlands.  I’ve highlighted a few in this blog, such as Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, and Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing LandAdd J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to that list as well.

But Luce’s book pulls back the lens so that we can see that the change is not just out here, but everywhere.  And a shaming moralism is no way to point the way to a brighter future for those who feel left behind.  “If politics is persuasion, these are dangerous tactics,” Luce says.  “There is a thin line between convincing people of the merits of a case and suggesting they are moral outcasts if they fail to see it.” (188)

There’s a theological argument to make here as well, which is not in Luce’s bailiwick.  It’s no more complex than the Golden Rule.  In seeing the world through the eyes of the other, we recognize a humanity that transcends our political assumptions.  Reading, and shuddering along with, Edward Luce, I wonder if we still have eyes to see.

The Tale the Blowflies Tell: A Review of The Dry by Jane Harper

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photo by Dominik Martin via Unsplash

It begins with the blowflies, as good a symbol as any for what happens to rural areas when the weather turns stagnant, hot, and deadly.  They know the smell of death and where to find it.  So it’s an ominous sign when these end-time harbingers descend upon a small farm in the Australian bush outside the town of Kiewarra and find three bodies.  The town is in trouble.

Jane Harper’s debut thriller, The Dry, is not in my usual reading wheelhouse.  I generally don’t like books where I can feel the mechanics of the plot whirring beneath the page heading for an inevitable tidy resolution.  And sure enough, The Dry heads inexorably toward such a conclusion in which red herrings are exposed and surprise twists revealed.  It’s all very cinematic, (Reese Witherspoon has the production rights), and I was suitably caught off guard by the way it all wound up.

But then again, I never guess these things.

51MFa84Sb9L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_What attracts me in literature is the untidy and unfinished.  The ways we find ourselves in the grip of unseen forces like history, race, and desire.  The ways the land speaks in our stories and shapes our souls.  The ways we find ourselves stripped of pretension, bared to the bone, and utterly dependent on an elusive, assured God.

I could see enough of that in The Dry to pick it up.  As readers of Heartlands will know, tales of rural places always catch my eye, and Harper does a wonderful job of bringing the Australian backcountry to life.

Kiewarra suffers from many of the same ailments as many an American small town.  Empty stores line the town street.  The schools are underfunded and dependent on charitable foundations that might release a few thousands.  The police force is a skeleton crew.

Aaron Falk, who returns to Kiewarra from Melbourne when a childhood friend and two members of his family turn up dead, also knows how things can curdle when the town turns against you.  In Melbourne, at least, “he wasn’t watched by curious eyes that knew every last thing about him.  His neighbors didn’t judge him, or harass him and spread rumors about his family….They left him alone.” (144).

Falk left as a teenager, run out of town with his father after Ellie, one of his classmates, drowned in the river (now a dried-up bed because of the drought).  The name ‘Falk’ was on a note in her pocket and the town began to believe that maybe the drowning wasn’t accidental and that either of the male Falks might be the culprit.

His dad died and Falk eventually became an agent of the Australian finance intelligence unit.  Now he is back in a town that didn’t want him, paying respects to his friend, Luke, who seemingly had taken a shotgun to his wife and 6-year-old son and then turned it on himself.  Of course, there’s more to that story, as there is to the mystery of what happened to Ellie twenty years before.  Falk gets drawn into the investigation and sticks around until both mysteries are solved.

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Jane Harper

Harper uses an unusual technique of doling out another omniscient narrator’s voice as the mystery unspools.  The other voice narrates what happened in the past with rich detail.  I think it works.

What really makes the book, however, is the setting and the determination to present characters that become real people.  And the blowflies, who hover over everything.  There’s a tale of whodunit to be told, but there are much larger stories, too.  Where do you find life when everything around you becomes tinder for an inevitable fire?  Where’s the river to quench the dry?

Why We Can’t Live Without Horseshoe Crabs

640px-Horseshoe_Crab_(4035546156)So let me tell you how I think with animals.  I see an animal…say, the harbor seal I encountered once while running down a deserted barrier island…I stop dead in my tracks.  Pull out my phone to take a picture…(natch)…and then time slows down.  I’m aware of the wind, the sun’s position in the sky, the sound the creature makes as it moves.  And I marvel that we share this space and yet perceive it so differently…me through the clunky apparatus of language, theory, and anthropomorphizing assumptions…the creature through its own instinctual drives and fears.

Then it’s gone.  The seal labors to the surf and disappears beneath the waves.  The deer bounds into the forest, her tail becoming a bouncing white feather before I lose sight of her.  The prairie dog chirps and scuttles into its hole.  But they’re still with me and I’m apt to be haunted by them for years.  They show up in poems and sermons, like some patronus of wisdom.

Of course other creatures don’t get such attention.  The black flies I smack into a bloody smear on my legs on those same barrier island trips get no love.  And the jellyfish that show up in the waters around here mid-summer are similarly unwelcome.  They become what Lisa Jean Moore calls “trash animals,” nuisances that we can exterminate or disregard because of their much lower status.

51lqYt1mKGL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Horseshoe crabs often occupy this rung of the chain of being.  But I’ve been fascinated by them since moving to Virginia’s Eastern Shore, just as Moore has been.  That’s why a friend gave me Moore’s book to read, Catch and Release: The Enduring yet Vulnerable Horseshoe Crab.

It’s not what I expected.  But then again I have never read a feminist intraspecies ethnography before.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Moore shares my wonder at horseshoe crabs.  They’re ancient, having existed on the planet since the Cambrian Age a half-billion years ago.  They have blue blood, which has distinctive qualities for detecting endotoxin contamination and is used for testing the safety of all “human and animal parenteral drugs, biological products, and medical devices.” (109)  They’re not really crabs and share more in common with scorpions and spiders.

Most intriguingly, they have a mating process that becomes a spectacle.  For years I have, (erroneously), believed that at high tide on the full moon closest to the summer solstice, horseshoe crabs will gather in the surf of certain beaches in the mid-Atlantic and, by the light of the moon, will begin to march ashore.  A female, the larger of the genders, will usually have a male crab amplexed to her ophisthosoma (yes, that’s what the kids ARE calling it these days) as she emerges from the water and will be accompanied by several other satellite males.  She will will lay hundreds of thousands of eggs in the sand which are then fertilized by the males.  Only about three larvae per 100,000 eggs will make it to juvenile status. (77)  Shorebirds, who adjust their migratory patterns to be present for the occasion, feast on the vulnerable crabs.

All of this is true except for the fact that the mating period is not limited to the one night near the summer solstice.  The season stretches from the end of April through June. (79)  The “one magic night” myth has appealed to the romantic in me, however, (much as Linus longed to see the Great Pumpkin on Halloween), and I have several stories of aborted kayaking trips on that night to Metompkin Island when fog and weather kept me from the beach.

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Lisa Jean Moore

Moore’s book is less romantic and less scientific than I had hoped for.  She approaches her work through a laudable effort to see horseshoe crabs in their relationship with their environment and other species, especially humans.  She talks about how our stories are intertwined, especially in the biomedical field as we have become dependent on bleeding horseshoe crabs for the safety of our injections.  But there are also stories to tell about our shared lives in the face of overfishing and global warming.  Moore also explores the language we use to talk about crabs that is overlaid with our own gender assumptions and anthropomorphizing tendencies.  She talks about our “enmeshment with horseshoe crabs—material, discursive, psychological—and our becoming and being with them.” (93)

There’s a lot to think about when you look at crabs this way.  I confess to being lost in all the theory at times reading Moore’s book.  “Just get to the crabs,” I kept grumbling as Moore talked about her own experiences donating blood and her moral quandaries with her diesel car.  But I’m no less prone to use the crabs as jumping off points for thinking about my life and the world.

They’re survivors, these crabs.  They have their own primitive beauty.  They respond to time and place in ways that are hard to fathom.  Like those monarch butterflies who know, four generations after their ancestors left Mexico, how to get back home.

I’ll get out to see the spectacle some day.  I’ve got the kayak ready.  And I’ll take a picture to share.  Natch.

Adapting Worship without Climbing Trees

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photo by Heidi Sandstrom via Unsplash

After this many years in worship and as a worship leader, I’ve seen just about everything.  Sung prayers in a cathedral choir?  Check.  Pentecostal healing service in a South Carolina swamp?  Check.  Taizé?  Check.  Cowboy Church?  Check.  Blue jeans and guitars?  Check.  Radio show a la Prairie Home Companion?  Check.  In a tree?  Check.

I know this sounds like a Dr. Seuss book…(Would you, could you in a boat?  Would you, could you with a goat?)…but it’s true.  I grew up in a generation that adapted worship in every conceivable way in an effort to be…get ready for it…relevant.

But maybe we got it wrong.

These days I visit a lot of churches where the worship forms have been set for a long time.  The hymnals are well-worn.  The kneeling pads are, too.  You’d think folks might be wanting a little more pizzazz.  What I suspect is that we’d all like something more than that—connection.

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_As I have been working my way through Jacob Armstrong’s book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon Press, 2015], I have been noting the ways his ideas might intersect with rural church ministry.  In his chapter on Adaptive Worship, Armstrong makes the point that reaching new people may not be a matter of moving out the pews and rolling in an electric keyboard.  In fact, “new ways of worship look old,” he says. (43)  The key is knowing why we do what do.

Actually, the first recommendation that Armstrong makes is that we “continually make worship accessible to those new to the church.” (40)  “But everybody knows how we do things around here,” you might respond.

Not the people who may visit or whom you invite.  It’s hard to underestimate how confusing and even intimidating it is to walk into an environment where it seems that everybody knows what to do but you.  And even for the folks who have been there awhile, knowing ‘how’ to do things doesn’t mean we know ‘why’ we do them.

Armstrong argues for intentionality in preparing worship: Thinking through all the parts of worship with “the eyes of the newcomer.” (41)  Unpacking or translating “churchy language into the common vernacular.” (43)  Staying in touch with our ancient traditions and being open about what they mean.  “Authenticity and honesty are more important than worship style,” Armstrong says. (44)

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Jacob Armstrong

Every size church can do these things and it doesn’t take a big budget to do them.  A worship service that feels like someone planned it carefully and with the expectation of welcoming new folks is a breath of fresh air in any environment.  And worship that holds on to its purpose as praising God in union with the church of every time and place is going to be faithful and powerful.

I felt like we were onto something with worship in a tree.  But possibilities abound in the sanctuary, too.  And maybe the tree wasn’t all that relevant.  Instead, let everything that has breath praise the Lord!

Waltzing (and Futzing) Across Texas: A review of Texas Blood

IMG_6669If you pick up this book you won’t know where you’re headed.  Texas, sure.  After all the title of Roger D. Hodge’s book is Texas Blood: Seven Generations Among the Outlaws, Ranchers, Indians, Missionaries, Soldiers, and Smugglers of the Borderlands.  And there are maps in the first chapter that will whet your appetite for West Texas adventures.  But this meandering book only occasionally stops long enough to soak in Texas.  You’re as likely to send time in Missouri or Arizona along the way.

41xqNH42f3L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Roger Hodge has his literary bona fides as an editor of Oxford American and Harper’s and he certainly can tell a tale.  But he’s not a crowd-pleaser.  He starts out this book sharing his dissatisfaction with the typical Texas history with its “generalizations and hoary meditations on Texas ‘character.’” Such grandiose pretensions are “self-congratulatory nationalistic rubbish” in Hodge’s view and need a perspective that is more diverse and tragic, recognizing the many crossing trails of Europeans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and Anglos who met each other here.  And he promises a personal story based on his own multi-generational family history in the state.

He finds some interesting stories, landscapes, and peoples.  What he never finds is a through line that can pull it all together.

Much of this is forgivable because the terrain is under-appreciated and richer in history than is usually acknowledged.  Out there in the canyons and deserts there are pictographs of the ancient Trans-Pecos peoples, abandoned cinnabar mines in the Big Bend, and artist colonies like the ones I discovered in Marfa and Terlingua last summer.  Hodge recreates western migrations along the southern route from San Antonio to San Diego complete with thousands of thirsty cattle, Apache raids, and roadside graves of those who didn’t make it.

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Roger D. Hodge

His own family appears frequently to remind us of Hodge’s connections to the state, as does Hodge himself who uses the narrative form to explore border issues like drugs, immigration, and walls.  You can’t help but feel that, as the line on the map hardens into actual structures that something precious is being lost.  Hodge’s memories of casual crossings from his home town of Del Rio into Acuña, Mexico highlight what used to be and is no more.

There’s an unhurried air to life in the borderlands.  People move slowly and always keep an eye on the horizon.  Hodge does the same as he wanders around this book.  He’s a fan of Cormac McCarthy and he has imbibed McCarthy’s sense of the mythical journeys you can take on the border.  Unlike, McCarthy, however, Hodge is cool and bloodless.  You get the sense he’s more interested than committed to the subject of his book.  Given the outsized role of Texas in our national story and politics these days, it seems more should be at stake here.

Praying with Fire: A Review of Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon

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photo by Aaron Thomas via Unsplash

“Dear God: Can you forgive someone for an act they cannot repent of?” (26)  So goes Maggie’s prayer journal in the aftermath of an affair in Jamie Quatro’s new novel, Fire Sermon.  Maggie has committed to move on.  Has cut off communication with the poet she spent one night with in Chicago.  In one light, she sees the ways the relationship has led her away from God, her husband, her children.  But she’s captivated by what it has meant and isn’t ready to let go of it.

That’s the interesting thing about sin: Major disrupting force in the universe.  The thing God says ‘no’ to.  The chasm that separates us from God and the wholeness God intends.  The power which estranges us from our essential self and enslaves us.  And yet what an illuminating light it shines!  “I do not think you should get rid of your sin until you have learned what it has to teach you,” Richard Rohr says in his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

41k+KOofr-L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Of course, some will say that Maggie is luxuriating in it.  She soon leaves off talking to God and begins to write to James, the lost lover, in entries she never sends to him.  She converses with a voice that sounds like a therapist (but who actually may be God) who tries to help her put the experience in a larger frame but she resists any effort to diminish the memory of the affair.

She narrates the difficult relationship with Thomas, her husband of twenty-five years and father of her two beautiful children.  “Thomas is, in fact, a good husband,” she says. (20)  But her ambivalence shows through in describing his awkward and demanding sexual approaches to her, both before and during their marriage.  He has only a grudging interest in her faith, despite the fact that her life with God is the fire that burns through everything.  He will sit in the pew with her on occasion.  He will nurture her and the children.  But she will still long for theology and poetry and someone with whom to share it.

Whether you, dear reader, will see this longing as holy discontent or ludicrous self-justification is an open question.  I suspect readers will be divided.  My own appreciation for the yearnings of mystics and the revelatory power of misguided desires made me a fan from the first page.  Julian of Norwich is etched into Maggie’s plight (and quoted).  The English priest and poet John Donne haunts Maggie’s confessions: “Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun/A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?”

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Jamie Quatro

Maggie takes a scandalous interest in her own pleasures and pains.  She is raw and honest, naked on the page.  The book’s narration fragments in time without ever losing sight of the struggle of her soul.  We bounce between prayers and poems, memories and text messages—the scattered evidence of this signal season in Maggie’s life.

It ends with Maggie’s ultimate revelation of the affair to Thomas, something she had never hidden very well from him anyway it seems.  The narrative rattles off the possible futures for the couple, but not before Maggie rouses herself to a summation—a “fire sermon” that she calls “a litany, a confession, a proposal.” (184)

She does it on a dare from the inner therapist voice to articulate her thoughts, to preach them to herself.  “It would sound like blasphemy,” Maggie protests.

I would say possibly heretical things about the nature of erotic desire.  I might not believe the things I say.  I would say them anyhow.  To see what I say, in order to know what I think, in order to observe.  Maybe even detach.

So say them.

I’m afraid I’ll leave a giant ink stain on the history of Christendom if I do.

How do you know unless you try? (183)

So she says them.  And you might roll your eyes.  You might call her a heretic.  But you may hear a strange and wonderful affirmation of the marriage covenant and the virtue of acknowledging and renouncing the ways our hearts are “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it!” You may find “intimations of immortality…reminders of the glory whence we came.” (190-1)

If it’s the affirmation you hear, you read the book that I did—a glowing furnace of a novel.  The testimony of an ecstatic soul.  The cry of the blissful, tortured pilgrim this side of eternity.  An appeal to God to “let me burn.” (191)

Why Churches Can’t Be Normal Again

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photo by J.D. Mason via Unsplash

Sometimes I have a fantasy that March 2019 will come, the special General Conference of the United Methodist Church designed to heal our rifts will have passed with a grand reaffirmation of our union, and we’ll all go back to normal.  That’s the funny thing about normal in the church, though—there’s no going back there.

Being the Church in the 21st century is going to involve some of the basics that have made us the Church through the previous centuries, but one of those basics is that the Church does not exist for itself but for God and for the new people God is welcoming in to the body of Christ.  And new people will need new spaces.

At least that’s the argument of Jacob Armstrong, the founding pastor of Providence Church in Mt. Joliet, Tennessee.  In this continuing series where I dialogue with Armstrong’s book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015], I have tried to think about the implications of the ideas here for rural communities like the Eastern Shore.  And much as I love the church as it was, which raised me, it’s hard to look at the changing world around us and argue with Armstrong’s thesis:

“A major adaptation is needed to reach people who have stopped feeling the need to come.  Almost everything will have to change. When worship, children’s ministry, youth ministry, and adult discipleship are all built around knowing what to do with the people when they get in the building, we can’t make incremental change here.  An adaptive change is required.” (28)

Easy to say for a guy who is starting a church without a building, (which is what Providence Church did), but that congregation eventually did move into its own space and now they faced a challenge—fighting the temptation to turn inward.  Armstrong proposes a question to counter that temptation: “There are many ways to leverage the land and the buildings you have to serve the community, but for a couple of events a year I suggest pretending like you don’t have those things.  How would you reach out and encounter new people if you did not have a building or land?” (30)

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_For Providence Church this meant holding a free cookout at the local trailer park, recognizing Armed Forces Day with a community event for military families, and showing up at public places and festivals.  Several churches on the Eastern Shore have tried similar things.  Franktown UMC has done that cookout in a local trailer park under a tent.  St. John’s took over the Pocomoke coffee house for a young adult night.  Grace Church went out on the Parksley square for a Halloween Trunk or Treat.  Drummondtown and Metropolitan churches marched together in Accomac on the Fourth of July and Trinity UMC has taken a decorated golf cart and a kazoo band into the Cape Charles parade.

Efforts like these not only help the community know about the churches, they also help the church see and get to know its mission field.  We break the pattern established by that unusual period that reached its peak in the 1950s and 60s when it was possible to build something and they would come.  What happens in our buildings is still vitally important to who we are, but the new people God desires to know about the good news of Jesus are now going to be “out there” for the most part.

I do recognize that the fantasy I have about “getting back to normal” is just that and that the future will have some discomforts as we do the work of adjusting, whatever the shape of our denominational home.  But I also get excited when I recognize that God’s Church does have a future and that the mission it has always had will not be changing.  In fact, I do believe that I am meeting that future in the faces of those who are searching for a home in God’s love.

Sure, there’s no going back.  But there are a lot of places yet to go!